Eat Well For Less? TV review: Getting people to eat healthily needs more carrot and less stick

There was something about the bossy and fussy presenters, Gregg Wallace and Chris Bavin, that repulsed Sean O'Grady even more than the Parsons family's dismal diet

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As it happens I was munching my way through a cheese and onion cob from our work canteen, plus a bag of Walkers Marmite flavour crisps (part of their fun "bring 'em back" flavour promotion) when I settled down to sample Eat Well for Less? I fancied that my lazily chosen, unhealthy and comparatively pricey snack consumed in the presence of such improving television might shame me into eating better for less, both at lunchtime and more generally.

Most of us eat rubbish, I thought, even though we know it is wrong, so I did wonder why the producers had put a question mark at the end of the title. I believed it to be common knowledge that meals cooked with fresh ingredients are both better for you than the processed stuff, and cheaper; that own-brand products are usually indistinguishable from the more famous versions; and that there's a lot of sugar and salt in ready meals.

Then I met the Parsons family. Clare, self-confessed cookophobe, declared that she would never "eat fish", though she liked fishcakes; that she thought dried basil was "weird"; and that she "wouldn't know how to prepare a meal from scratch". Thus, the family has been following a strict routine for seven years as follows (all pre-cooked):

Monday: pizza.

Tuesday: chicken and pasta, or chicken and rice.

Wednesday: spag bol.

Thursday: whatever we didn't have on Tuesday.

Friday: maybe go out with friends.

Saturday: fajitas.

Sunday: roast in winter, BBQ in summer.




All fairly appalling, or at least indulgent and uneconomical. And yet there was something about the bossy and fussy presenters, Gregg Wallace and Chris Bavin, that repulsed me even more than the family's dismal diet. When they started on about saving £1.45 a year on pasta or something I felt like reaching for the nearest Domino's flyer in a personal act of deep-crusted defiance. There Gregg and Chris were, the Himmler and Goebbels of food fascism, snooping around the supermarket watching Clare and Richard doing their big shop, collecting evidence and creating a charge sheet of food crimes such as "buying top-end pizzas, top-end coleslaw" and – an especially decadent choice, this – ready-chopped broccoli. It was as if Gregg and Chris had just witnessed a Roman orgy down at Tesco.

Yes, the Parsons family spent £223.36 on a range of overpriced treats for themselves and the kids, but, to be honest, they looked like they could afford it and they didn't really need to make that much of a saving on their food bills to move into an even bigger house. The real reason they shop and eat the way they do is because these busy parents and active children need to get on with their lives and not fret about the difference between Panda and Pepsi, or what kind of fish is in their fishcakes. Or, as they should have told Gregg and Chris, pollocks to that.

Rather than Gregg and Chris, what the Parsons really needed was an algorithm to help them get through the week. According to the engaging The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, these "bite-sized chunks of maths" are everywhere, making us do things we never realised we didn't want to do, "the secret to our digital world and so much more". Thus, the camera in your smartphone has an algorithm that will centre a photo on a face; Euclid's algorithm will help you tile your floor, among other things; and the Gale-Shapley algorithm will match potential spouses. What an algorithm can't do is create good television. They need to get to work on that one.